C-Band Announcement Moot on Rural Wireless

On November 18, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told several members of Congress that he had decided there should be a public auction for the C-Band spectrum that sits between 3.7 GHz and 4.2 GHz. The spectrum has historically been used by satellite companies for communication between satellites and earth stations. This is prime spectrum for 5G cellular broadband, but also could provide a huge benefit to fixed wireless providers in rural America. Chairman Pai will be asking the rest of the FCC commissioners to approve an order sometime after the first of next year. Making an early announcement is a bit unusual since major orders like this are usually announced by releasing a written order that comes after a vote of the Commission.

The letters from Chairman Pai describe four reasons behind the decision: First, we must make available a significant amount of C-Band spectrum for 5G. Second, we must make spectrum available for 5G quickly. Third, we must generate revenue for the federal government. And, Fourth, we must protect the services that are currently delivered using the C-Band so that they can continue to be delivered to the American people. 

Missing from Chairman Pai’s letter was any mention of making the C-Band spectrum available for rural fixed wireless. WISPA and other rural proponents have been lobbying for sharing the spectrum so that the C-Band could be used for urban 5G while also benefitting faster rural broadband.

This has been an unusual docket from the start because the satellite providers, under the name of the C-Band Alliance (CBA) offered to relocate to the higher part of the spectrum if they could hold a private auction to sell the vacated spectrum to the cellular carriers. There were several problems with that offer. First, the satellite providers would make billions of dollars of windfall profits through selling spectrum that they don’t own. Federal law makes it clear that the FCC has the right to award or take-back spectrum and it would have been a major precedent for license holders to be able to sell spectrum for a huge profit. There were also obvious concerns about transparency, and it was feared that backroom deals would be struck to give spectrum to the big cellular carriers for bargain prices while still benefitting the satellite companies.

There was also a political nuance. The CBA proposed to give some of the proceeds of the private auction to the federal government, similar to what happens in an FCC auction. However, money given that way would go towards paying off the federal deficit. Proceeds of FCC auctions can be earmarked for specific uses and legislators all wanted to see the spectrum sold by FCC auction so that they could use some of the money.

The rural spectrum-sharing idea might not be not dead since the announcement was made by short letter. However, the Chairman could easily have mentioned rural broadband in the letters to legislators and didn’t. The Chairman has made numerous speeches where he said that solving the rural digital divide is his primary goal. It’s clear by his actions during the last few years that deregulation and giveaways to the big carriers under the guise of promoting 5G are the real priority of this FCC.

The C-Band spectrum sits next to the recently released CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz. Just as additional spectrum benefits 5G, fixed wireless technology improves significantly by combining multiple bands of frequency. Rural carriers have been arguing for years that the FCC should allow for the sharing of spectrum. Proponents of rural broadband argue that urban and rural use of spectrum can coexist since most 5G spectrum is only going to be needed in urban areas. They believe that such spectrum can be used in a point-to-point or point-to-multipoint configuration in rural America without interfering with urban 5G. The big cellular carriers are reluctant to share spectrum because it causes them extra effort, so only the FCC can make it happen.

If the final order doesn’t require frequency sharing, it will be another slap in the face for rural broadband. Since there is not yet a written order, proponents of rural broadband still have an opportunity to be heard at the FCC on the topic. However, I fear that the issue has already been decided and that rural broadband will again be ignored by the FCC.

Another Spectrum Battle

Back in July the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments for opening up spectrum from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz, known as the C-Band. As is happening with every block of usable spectrum, there is a growing tug-of-war between using this spectrum for 5G or using it for rural broadband.

This C-Band spectrum has traditionally been used to transit signals from satellites back to earth stations. Today it’s in use by every cable company that receives cable TV signals at a ‘big-dish’ satellite farm. The spectrum had much wider use in the past when it was used to deliver signal directly to customers using the giant 7 – 10 foot dishes you used to see in rural backyards.

This spectrum is valuable for either cellular data or for point-to-multipoint rural radio broadband systems. The spectrum sits in the middle between the 2.4 GHz and the 5.8 GHz used today for delivering most rural broadband. The spectrum is particularly attractive because of the size of the block, at 500 megahertz.

When the FCC released the NPRM, the four big satellite companies – Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat – created the C-Band Alliance. They’ve suggested that some of their current use of this spectrum could be moved elsewhere. But where it’s not easy to move the spectrum, the group volunteered to be the clearing house to coordinate the use of C-Band for other purposes so that it won’t interfere with satellite use. The Alliance suggests that this might require curtailing full use of the spectrum near some satellite farms, but largely they think the spectrum can be freed for full use in most places. Their offer is seen as a way to convince the FCC to not force satellite companies completely out of the spectrum block.

I note that we are nearing a day when the need for the big satellite earth stations to receive TV might become obsolete. For example, we see AT&T delivering TV signal nationwide on fiber using only two headends and satellite farms. If all TV stations and all satellite farm locations were connected by fiber these signals could be delivered terrestrially. I also note this is not the spectrum used by DirecTV and Dish networks to connect to subscribers – they use the K-band at 12-18 GHz.

A group calling itself the Broadband Access Coalition (BAC) is asking the FCC to set aside the upper 300 megahertz from the band for use for rural broadband. This group is comprised of advocates for rural wireless broadband, including Baicells Technologies, Cambium Networks, Rise Broadband, Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute at New America, and others. The BAC proposal asks for frequency sharing that would allow for the spectrum to be used for both 5G and also for rural broadband using smart radios and databases to coordinate use.

Both the satellite providers and the 5G companies oppose the BAC idea. The satellite providers argue that it’s too complicated to share bandwidth and they fear interference with satellite farms. The 5G companies want the whole band of spectrum and tout the advantages this will bring to 5G. They’d also like to see the spectrum go to auction and dangle the prospect for the FCC to collect $20 billion or more from an auction.

The FCC has it within their power to accommodate rural broadband as they deal with this block of spectrum. However, recent history with other spectrum bands shows the FCC to have a major bias towards the promise of 5G and towards raising money through auctions – which allocates frequency to a handful of the biggest names in the industry.

The BAC proposal is to set aside part of the spectrum for rural broadband while leaving the whole spectrum available to 5G on a shared and coordinated basis. We know that in real life the big majority of all ‘5G spectrum’ is not going to be deployed in rural America. The 5G providers legitimately need a huge amount of spectrum in urban areas if they are to accomplish everything they’ve touted for 5G. But in rural areas most bands of spectrum will sit idle because the spectrum owners won’t have an economic use for deploying in areas of low density.

The BAC proposal is an interesting mechanism that would free up C-Band in areas where there is no other use of the spectrum while still fully accommodating 5G where it’s deployed. That’s the kind of creating thinking we need to see implemented.

The FCC keeps publicly saying that one of its primary goals is to improve rural broadband – as I wrote in a blog last week, that’s part of their primary stated goals for the next five years. This spectrum could be of huge value for point-to-multipoint rural radio systems and would be another way to boost rural broadband speeds. The FCC has it within their power to use the C-Band spectrum for both 5G and for rural broadband – both uses can be accommodated. My bet, sadly, is that this will be another giveaway to the big cellular companies.